Can Hip-Hop Help Get Out the Vote? Rap moguls have been successful in getting young voters to show up at voter registration rallies. But does that mean they will actually cast a ballot on Election Day? For more, we hear from a political organizer, a music journalist, and local recording artist.
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Can Hip-Hop Help Get Out the Vote?

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Can Hip-Hop Help Get Out the Vote?

Can Hip-Hop Help Get Out the Vote?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. Getting young, first-time voters to show up to the polls on Election Day can be tricky. As we heard earlier in the show, youth vote organizers use everything from technology to music to mobilize this voting bloc. Now we're going to focus on how hip-hop is firing up some voters this election. We're speaking with Robert "Biko" Baker, the executive director of the League of Young Voters, Sonia Murray, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and DJ Drama, an Atlanta-based recording artist and DJ. Welcome to you all.

Ms. SONIA MURRAY (Reporter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Thank you.

Mr. ROBERT "BIKO" BAKER (Executive Director, League of Young Voters): Thank you.

Mr. DJ DRAMA (Recording Artist and DJ): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: All right, DJ Drama, this may be a tough one but I'm having a week where I'm asking folks tough questions. You - one of the folks that you have collaborated with is T.I. He recently admitted that he was guilty of some gun charges. He was recently tossed from a sponsorship deal, but he is now on Sunday at Temple University in Pennsylvania, in Philly, headlining a hip-hop voter registration event. Do you think that it's fair for artists who are having legal problems or who may not meet X, Y, or Z standards to be the people who are out in front on this? How do you feel about that? Even though he's one of your friends?

Mr. DJ DRAMA: I mean, you know, to not sound biased, but of course, that is one of my friends. And you know, as a person that I know very well on a level outside of what the media may see so, of course, you know, outside of the charges that have come up recently, you know, through the last couple of years, I know the importance of what he has meant to, you know, hip-hop and the community and also just the local Atlanta community and things of that nature. And, you know, I think to have someone like T.I. in the position to doing what he's doing, especially facing these charges, is in a way a blessing in disguise for young voters and for the hip-hop generation.

And, you know, one of those reasons mainly being on a surface level, you know, this is the least political hip-hop has ever been in its years. You know what I mean? In the last 25 to 30 years on a surface level. So for people of my generation and younger to have somebody like T.I. come to these events, come to the hip-hop Action Summit Network and to speak out of the importance of voting and other issues at hand is, you know, a very big deal, because when you look at television nowadays and you see a lot of hip-hop music videos or a lot of hip-hop artists, not a lot of political messages are getting across.

So when you have events like this that Russell Simmons and Ben Chavis are putting together and hip-hop artists come out, it's very important that youth see their favorite rappers and artists and things of that nature speaking about the importance. Because, you know, when I was coming up, we had Public Enemy and Poor Righteous Teachers, and I can name a lot that on that level we would see speaking about those things in the music. And now it's like, you know, a lot of these artists, including T.I., are very involved in a lot of senses but we don't get to see that on that level. So definitely, I think it's an excellent thing that he's in a position to do that.

CHIDEYA: Biko, how do you think - I mean, I've heard some people say, well, when did we pass the torch to musicians to be political leaders? Now, on the one hand there have always been people like Harry Belafonte who've taken a strong lead in civil rights issues. But why do you think that music and, not just music, but hip-hop culture became so prominent as an organizing vehicle for youth politics?

Mr. BAKER: I mean, because it's the patois of the United States. It's our patois. The unfortunate thing is because there hasn't been the baton passing. You know, his name is DJ Drama, and I respect him for that name but we embrace this warrior culture so that we don't battle our own contradictions. A leader in public needs to battle their contradictions. That's what King was doing. That's what Malcolm X was doing. And what's happened is that these rappers - and you know, I cut my teeth as a journalist with The Source magazine and have worked in the music industry for the last, you know, six years - are put in the situation where they're cut off from their communities once they get signed.

And even me in my job, I'm cut off from my community. And they don't feel that everyday pressure of what's going on in the hood. So when they show up, you know, in October, we appreciate and love them, but if we're really going to have change in our community they have to keep being there. And I don't know where T.I.'s heart is. But if he really believes in, you know, in changing the community, then he has to keep standing on voter registration and keep being there. But if he doesn't believe in it, you're going to see his leadership continue to struggle in the mainstream media, because these rappers know what the deal is. They know that they're battling these contradictions, and they know - they got their inner conscience talking to them.

CHIDEYA: Sonia, let me go to you. You have been a hip-hop journalist. You've covered other things as well, but you have covered Outkast, Ludacris, Little John, T.I. I don't want to make this about any one rapper, but in general, when - you know, we've talked to some rappers who are incredibly politically conscious, maybe not in their rhymes but on a personal level. So sometimes there's that distinction, but in general, when you talk not just to the artists but to the fans, how do they perceive the role of hip-hop in political activism?

Ms. MURRAY: It's interesting that you say that, because I've followed T.I. the past couple of times as he's spoken during his community service with high schools, with young people. And people - when you asked Drama the question about, you know, how could he be a spokesperson? Well, because people are listening to him, and because people are connecting with him. And if someone - if it's someone that you can listen to, then you should give them that floor. I mean, he's a very intelligent guy. He connects with the audience. And he's speaking to a lot of the things that I believe in the previous session you talked about. When politicians aren't talking about things that young people are interesting in or have going on in their neighborhoods and the musicians are, then they're going to listen to them. And they're going to have - they're going to strike a different chord with them than it will with someone who is not saying anything about what's going on in your neighborhood.

So I mean, to answer your question, I think that in large part because musicians, you know - I think, first of all, young people can differentiate between what they hear on record and who that person is in front of them. I think that, you know, in the same instance that Public Enemy and Chuck D recently was talking about, he was here for the Red Bull Summit Committee, Red Bull Summit Academy, they had here. And to hear him talk about, you know, I think you should vote locally instead of nationally because he doesn't really think that you could have an impact, you know, on the presidential campaign, was amazing to me. And he had - he was talking to young people. And someone who's often, you know, held up as a force and a voice for political action saying something like that. And it resonated with people because he said people need to be really involved in their neighborhoods, voting for their school boards and that kind of thing. And that's where they feel they can make an impact and see the impact rather than, you know. And not that I agree with him, but that was his position.

CHIDEYA: Well, DJ Drama, you're someone who comes from a family that has a lot of interest in intellectual issues, academic firepower. You mentioned that this is a relatively apolitical time for hip-hop. Why do you think that is?

Mr. DJ DRAMA: You know, I can't really say why it is. I mean, I've been listening and part of hip-hop for some quite time and again, I just that, you know, in that golden era which is, you know, the years between '88 and '92 and, you know, what followed that after, you know, Dr. Dre and The Chronic and gangsta rap and, you know, what hip-hop has become. I mean, you know, one, I want to say that a lot of that blame should not go on the artist, you know what I'm saying? I mean, definitely, you know, there was a time and a place where, you know, a lot of the music changed and a lot of the political music wasn't supported as much as, you know, gangsta rap or what was viewed as gangsta rap in that sense.

But you know, again, like I said, like a lot of it, again, is on surface level. And you know, just use it as an example. I mean, you know, I went to one of the hip-hop summit action networks that I was a part of. Artists like Hurricane Chris, you know, which has, in my opinion, kind of a silly song which is a hit called "A Bay Bay". And to hear this young guy speak, I mean, I was so impressed, you know, to hear the head on his shoulders and, you know, the message that he was giving across. I think he's like 17 or 18. And this was at Morris Brown College, where a lot of the audience members were college students and everything. So, you know, I mean, I think that in music a lot of things come in cycles and everything and, you know, we just - there was a party era of hip-hop that, you know, was very popular at one time and place.

You know, I mean dancing is not new in hip-hop and is popular again, so I'm sure that cycle will come back around. But I mean, you know, we also have people like Jay-Z and the position that he's in is one the most prominent figures on Fortune 500, and Russell Simmons who, you know, put so many things together. So it's a broader scale now so, again, you know, it's political and it's in the bigger scheme of things. I mean, who's to say Russell Simmons is not going to run for some office one day?

CHIDEYA: I just want to give a shout. If anyone - we have to time for one question, if anyone wants to come to the mike. But meanwhile, if you're just tuning in, we are talking about the hip-hop vote with Sonia Murray, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, DJ Drama, an Atlanta-based recording artist and DJ, and Rob "Biko" Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters. Of course, this is NPR's News & Notes, and I am Farai Chideya. Sonia, let me ask you about gender because one the things that strikes me as a bit of a paradox is that if hip-hop is, as "Biko" said, the patois of, not just black folks, not just young folks, but of, you know, current American pop culture, where - how can women be solicited into action by hip-hop when hip-hop can be so disrespectful of women?

Ms. MURRAY: That's a tough question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MURRAY: I think you kind of have to look broader than hip-hop the music and look at hip-hop the generation or hip-hop the culture. I mean, when you look at it that way, you see people of the hip-hop generation. Cary(ph) Washington showed up alongside Usher to support Barack Obama. I mean, they are part of the hip-hop generation. I don't think people who are a part of it see it as narrowly as that. I mean, yes. There are a lot of attacks of women - on women in music, in hip-hop music, in, I mean, I see some really racy country music videos. In pop music videos women are rolling around naked too. I mean, I don't tend to generalize that way.

Yes, there are very awful things said about women, awful images of women in all genres of music, visually. But I think at the same time, I think that we're smarter than to think that hip-hop is as minute as that, it's just the music. And that I think that in supporting whomever, you know, for the presidential campaign, we are looking at the issues. We are smarter than that. And we don't really see - I don't really see, I can only speak for myself - I don't really see hip-hop as just the music. And I ain't going to differentiate myself from it because of some things, the bad things that were said in hip-hop.

CHIDEYA: I want to go to a microphone. Please get close to it. Give us your name, where you're from and your question.

Mr. SHAWLA LEWIS (Audience Member): Yes. My name Shawla(ph) Lewis, and I'm originally from The Gambia in West Africa, based now in Douglasville, Georgia. And Farai, thanks for coming and joining us here. We definitely enjoy having you.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

Mr. LEWIS: Hip-hop to me is two-faced. I call it two-faced because on the one hand, as we just heard the young lady, Ms. Murray, just reiterated the fact that, you know, they're saying all kinds of things about women, calling them all kinds of names. And then on the other hand, talking about educating our young folks to vote. I mean, we can't take them seriously. That's number one. I mean, it's making them...

CHIDEYA: When you say "them" who do mean?

Mr. LEWIS: I mean the hip-hop artists. Because a lot of them really are looking at the funds that they're making, not involved in community activities as they should. But my big thing and the question that I wanted to ask, don't we think that we have to really rethink and look at society, at our homes, our family values? The most important thing here is, we have a lot of single-family homes. And therefore, the one mom or dad is out there doing two, three jobs trying to take care of the family, not having time to spend with the children. And therefore, leaving the children to go about doing what it is that want to do and not going to school, the dropout rate is so high, and we are not able to take control of that. And we are able to bring the family value, don't you think, by bringing the family together, two-family home, we'll be able to control the problem that we have right now among the youths?

CHIDEYA: I'm going to toss that to you, "Biko", and then it looks like Drama wants to jump in.

Mr. BAKER: I think, I mean, there's not - there shouldn't be no surprise that hip-hop is two-faced. The boys talked about, you know, the black, the masks. You know, I mean, we - double consciousness. We think with both sides of our brain. I ask anybody that comes to me and says it's the family, ask them why is our family like this? This isn't by accident, you know what I'm saying? One thing that you see from the result of the civil rights movement and the black power movement are these crazy policies that are getting implemented, like the war on drugs. They come and criminalize our communities, you know what I'm saying?

You need to listen to hip-hop, you need to listen to Lil Boosie, you know what I'm saying? You need to listen to these cats who are - who for me, you know, it's hard for me as an older cat in hip-hop to appreciate them because their lyrical skills isn't what it used to be. But they're still telling the truth. And they don't know their mother, they don't know their father. Their father's been in jail. There's two million people in jail right now. Fifty thousand people are going to die a violent death this year from homicide or suicide. These kids don't have any parents. And this is real. And if they do have parents, they're, like you said, working. So if you're not listening to the kids then we have a real problem because they're the only ones telling the truth.

CHIDEYA: I'm going to get Drama in here.

Mr. DJ DRAMA: I mean, you know, I think, again, a lot of times hip-hop is always blamed for the ills of, you know, American society and, you know, family values being one of those. And again, we do have to remember that it is entertainment, you know. And although I think it is a very powerful tool and, you know, it can be utilized in very powerful ways, I mean, you know, hip-hop artists are not, you know, they don't get on to become the children's role models, although there are situations where they're looked at. But then again, you know, it's a question I always ask. If Martin Scorsese came out and, you know, has made "The Departed" and "Goodfellas" and, you know, all these gangster movies and you know, and his movies killed thousands of people, and sit here and said y'all need to vote and everyone needs to vote and vote for somebody, it's like nobody's going to attack him like they would attack an artist, you know, saying - that may speak on his music and so forth, because at the end of the day, it's still entertainment.

CHIDEYA: Sonia, we're going to wrap this up with you. How are you doing in terms of covering the hip-hop political events? Are folks coming through Atlanta? Do you see some energy around the hip-hop organizing?

Ms. MURRAY: I honestly, in Atlanta, don't. I mean, in terms of just artists who are coming to speak to rallies or that kind of thing, we hear about the hip-hop, some of that action network , the thing that's happening at Temple University. I haven't really noticed that here in Atlanta yet. At the same time, I know that, you know, whenever the microphone is put in front of a Ludacris or a T.I. or whomever, they are very intelligent in the way that they speak. They're informed about what's happening. And I think that - it's not a rally but it is an informed voice, our voice, you know.

And they talk about, in interviews and that kind of thing, what they're doing outside of rapping. What they're doing within their community. What kinds of foundations they're involved in and the activities that they're participating in. So no, there's not a rally, but I think they often take the opportunity when they have a microphone in their face to discuss things that are happening within their community and the importance of voting.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank all three of you. Appreciate your time, thanks.

Mr. DJ DRAMA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking to DJ Drama, an Atlanta-based recording artist and DJ, Sonia Murray, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Rob "Biko" Baker, the executive director of the League of Young Voters. They all joined me at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. And you can watch highlights of today's town hall meeting at our website, npr.newandnotes.org.

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